Sport by its nature is something people are fanatical about, whatever the sport, from football to running, and amongst fanatics are experts, people with passion who will not buy into anything that appears to be false, or too salesy. Sales and marketing people in the sports world know that they need to reach influencers, get to the grassroots, and be ‘authentic’.
“It’s such a cliche but content must be authentic,”says Jim Dowling, MD of agency, Cake (a digital marketing agency with a sports specialism). “The audience has got to believe the influencer and the brand cares about what they’re talking about. Every fan can smell a fraud, epitomised perfectly by the old John Thomson sketch in the Fast Show, of the Arsenal fan opening up his picnic hamper at Highbury.”
Be relevant and impactful
Keeping it real and relevant is key to good ‘storytelling’ in marketing and advertising. “Every brand, and marketeer, needs to know their story,” says Dowling. “The story has to be relevant and real. For example, it’s not hard to see why a luxury car, an airline, a health and nutrition brand or a fashion label aligns itself to a football player and his lifestyle.” But according to Dowling, integrity is also important in storytelling. Brands that improve or support a sport, its fans or its participants can enjoy the benefits. A good example, is Asian Car brand Kia, which has been a lone figure in supporting women’s sport, breaking new ground three years ago by becoming the first stand-alone sponsor of the England women’s team. In doing so it has had a significant role in driving awareness and interest in both the team and the Kia Super League. The brand has helped make an impact and make a difference. “Women’s cricket is on the rise now,” says Dowling. “That brand supported the sport when no-one cared; helping today’s stars with practical support and financial resource when they needed it.”
Changes in how we ‘consume’ sport
As well as hooking in fans with a strong story, those marketing sport and sports brands need to take into account that due to our changing technological world, the presentation of sport is no longer the linear thing it once was, which changes what sort of content we need to produce. Gritty, real, unpolished is the preference of the younger generation. “I watched ten world cups on ITV since 1982, when I was aged nine. However young or old I’ve been, I’ve sat down, watched a presenter and a few pundits, and then I’ve watched some adverts for beer and cars. It’s only now that I can actually buy the car,” says Dowling. “A nine-year-old today has a choice. Watch the football, Lee Dixon and the Heineken ads; or instead choose an option from the smartphone, the tablet, or a fresh bout of Fortnite or Fifa. The telly simply doesn’t have the same impact that it once did.”
Writing on Linkedin, James Massing, from the National Football League (NFL), said: “Live streaming, over-the-top (OTT) service delivery, mobile applications, social video, virtual reality, augmented reality, performance insights and realtime highlights make up a digital landscape that has impacted the global sports industry.”
The impact of these tech advances, says Massing, is that fans are now ‘closer to the action’, which in turn gives them more say and more influence. And as Dowling points out, they’re getting closer to this action both from the living room, and at the stadium. “What we are seeing is the stadium attempting to replicate the living room, and the living room trying to emulate the stadium. If you’re there, you’re there. But you miss the replay, the stats, Lee Dixon at half-time etc. If you’re at home, you get comfort, analysis and you don’t have to queue at the fridge for your beer. VR & AR, whether deployed by a broadcaster or an in-stadium mobile experience are at the intersection –trying to turn both into the same thing.”
For brands, retailers, sports teams and marketeers it can seem like we’re staring into a bottomless pit of noise. Whether it’s watching football or seeking advice about running, triathlon, tennis or basketball, more and more of us are being led by the younger generation and searching out ways to get free content. “Today, the ‘Gen Z’ (roughly speaking those born in the mid to late 90s/early 2000s) go to YouTube because it’s free,” says Dowling. “That’s their natural behaviour.”
Twitter says sport is one of its main sectors and is live streaming the US NLF. In 2017 more than 6.5 million watched the Champions League final on BT Sport – 2.1 million of which were watched on digital platforms. BT Sport puts highlights on YouTube and clips on Twitter in order to attract younger audiences who consume content on their mobile phones.
“A large proportion of the media exposure generated by sport comes from social channels, with clips being passed around,” said Dowling, but as he points out, when this happens, they are, ‘taking the brand with them.’ And he adds: “What’s defined as ‘free’ remains to be seen. ‘Free to air’ sport on amazon prime or Facebook isn’t strictly free when you the user (with your personal data) are of course, the product. It will be interesting to see how the younger audience reacts to that in the next few years.”
As well as social broadcasting, another area that looks set to rise and impact on how we consume sport and sell sport, is sports, and brands, creating their own platforms and becoming their own publishers. Doing this helps them to reach the grassroots, build relationships directly with their fans and it works very well or the smaller sports who are largely ignored by the traditional broadcasters.
“County championship cricket is one to watch in the UK. No-one outside of Sussex or Somerset is hugely interested in Sussex or Somerset. But cricket fans in these counties are now well served by live streams from grounds and audio feeds on the BBC website,” says Dowling.
And other sports are doing the same, Campaign magazine note that 2.1 million watched the live stream of British Table Tennis matches through Facebook, and the LTA have linked live streaming of tennis matches with data and stats gathered by artificial intelligence powered by IBM’s Watson.
In sport it’s clear that the democratic side of the virtual world plays a large part, with fans getting closer to the action, having a say in what they watch, and directing the powers be to deliver relevant content that makes an impact to sport.
However, as technological advances continue with developments such as Mercedes Benz’s Connected Stadium in Georgia, USA, it’s important to remember that it’s the sport, the game, the action that matters – the stats, analysis, highlights and replays on the mobile screen are a bonus. The emotion-stirring power of the tribe of fans, the banter in fanzines, the atmosphere at matches or in events, and of course the sport itself, should never be under-estimated or ignored.